Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Winged Nights

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Alan J. was a boy who no one quite wanted around, not really. Even if they didn’t hound him with that fact, he felt it. It wasn’t that he was a nuisance; that would be something to note, make him easier to relate to. It might have made life easier in the school yard where he was ignored, generally, and at home, where he suffered the ignoble status as youngest and smallest–a “runt” as his siblings said. He could make the fiercest faces at them (which incited more taunts) but had even less to say as the years rolled by. It was not his nature to spout off or to mumble on about things. It made many people uncomfortable. He observed and learned quickly, he asked such questions for just an eleven year old, his teachers assured his parents; he was an unusually introspective child.

Maybe, he thought, he was just not ready to tell the world what he thought of its silliness and beauty and puzzles.

Even the house, once rather grand, seemed to ignore him, perhaps in relief, as it was full of raucous activity. He could fade away into its dusty far corners. It was a big house, if now worn about the edges. Gran and Grandpop (the J. of his name: for his grandfather, Jackson) had run it as a bed and breakfast for many years, then Grandpop died. The past nearly four years she had relinquished it to her daughter and son-in-law and their four children. It had become more a home, not a business, Gran said with a long sigh–as if she missed the latter and didn’t so much crave the former, anymore. At least in its present state. She was slowing down and let them deal with the greater matters.

Wintry rainfall pattered and dashed against the roof, under which Alan J. sat with flashlight in hand, illuminating the bead board of his sloped ceiling. Once an attic, the room was a reasonable size if a bit dank, separated by a small bathroom from his oldest sister’s bedroom. Sarah was now relegated to visitor status since attending college. And big brother Gerry didn’t want the room, as he was well installed at the end of the third floor hallway, the opposite end of his parents’, separated by a guest room and bath; the second floor was primarily commandeered by Hannah and Gran though there was a also study (and bath) used by both his father and mother. Alan J. wasn’t sure how he’d lucked out getting an attic room. It suited him, and he was nagged about taking too frequent refuge in the so-named “AJ Cave.”

Grandpop used to take refuge with him in either attic room way back then if none was rented, as they loved to watch the sunset, the moon and stars from up there. The old man had a telescope which was in the den now, and he’d also read some of any book Alan J. chose, then the boy would read haltingly for his soft-spoken, hunched over Grandpop. He was the one tourists loved to see again; Gran was hospitable, unruffled but sheathed in a coolness, ever the businesswoman. But that was all a long time ago, three and a half years now. Grandpop was sometimes nearby yet not there, at all, a baffling thing.

He smiled as he studied the darkening blur beyond his window. Treetops whipped about in a glistening wind. His flashlight beam then zigzagged about the bead board ceiling, then back to his personal balcony which was long and narrow. It stretched from his small outside door to his decamped sister’s. Sarah had long ago put up a bamboo screen and nailed it to the railing and outer wall. It was decrepit but ivy she’d had in pots crept up the house and over the top into his sunny or dreary part. He liked seeing it there still. Alan J. missed her some, especially the last year when there were midnight bombs of marshmallows and chocolate drops and dumb missives thrown over the screen, at his windows. She had gotten drunk a few too many times. He’d not complained as she laughed more then, and he generally liked her surprises. Sometimes he had tossed marshmallows and miscellaneous junk back and then total madness was on.

She had at least seen him, noted his presence often. But Sarah would not be home for holidays; too much money for a quick plane trip.

It was getting closer to Christmas, a week or so now. This bothered him. Alan J. usually knew what to get people, something simple like packets of seeds for spring or a good if used book or a drawing of the brick-red covered bridge over D Street Canal or a flamingo or a race car or bouquet (his one talent, his brother conceded, was that he drew well). This year he was empty of ideas, probably because they’d had to tighten the purse strings, as mother said, so the mood was less inflated. Dad, a big manufacturing plant’s supervisor (soon to be manager, they still hoped), was laid off with the rest of the workers for six weeks, on a sharply reduced pay. That meant their allowances were suspended, other budgetary cuts made.

No, he was not yet inspired to draw much of interest, but it might still come. Or he’d come up with a crafty thing.

Alan J. stood and looked out over neighbors’ houses. The whole block had houses two stories or even one. People thought they lived in a mini-mansion but the truth was, they lived in a rambling house that looked good across the street but up close showed age, even an unmistakable neglect. Still, the view from his attic room and balcony stirred in Alan J. a sense of confidence and expectancy, as if he was a ship’s captain or an airport watchtower’s commander and there were important things to see, do and plan. He liked being able to glimpse quick scenes of neighbors’ activities, too, as darkness fell and lights cast a golden glow over inhabitants. Sometimes he tried to sketch them at their tables or lolling on porches or watering gardens. He found it all worthy of a long look.

Tonight he watched various goings-on, and the black bare tree branches and gleaming streets, and felt something like a longing with discontent, even as he smelled pot roast aromas stealing upstairs. Or he imagined it, since Gran and his mother– after she’d rushed home from her bank job–were preparing it earlier. His father had been in the basement, fixing a scratched old toaster or at least looking busy at the workbench and he’d nodded at his son, asked how the day was. Then they both fell silent. His father was down there a lot lately, and he cracked jokes less often than Alana J. would have liked, despite how corny they were.

The trash cans banged and crashed about; the wind had tossed things here or there. Another sudden crash disturbed the falling dark, and then another. It could be a homeless person or a raccoon or even a coyote. Alan J. had seen the last only one time, and he hoped to see another, so he tossed on a heavy grey hoodie and went onto his balcony to take a look.

As he bent over the railing and peered down below he just made out a scrawny figure with a backpack poking about the trash cans, tossing a couple of cans into a plastic bag. His father might yell out a window at a vagrant, as he called most who came onto their lot, but Alan J. always looked. Waited. He wondered where they came from and where they were going, what they most hoped to find. Any tossed food–even if  it was not spoiled–would be a sodden mess in winter and the thought of having to eat such a thing made him feel ill.

He’d left outgrown tennis shoes out there; they were gone faster than he expected. So he left other things in bags by the cans, like a sweater he hated (had a dog on it) and a pillow that had fuzzy yarn daisies which Sarah left behind in her closet. Gran had seen him do it. And Hannah, now thirteen and too busy for him, so she just shrugged and flounced off. Gran shook her head, said nothing.

The rummaging didn’t stop despite the inclement evening, chilled and wet. Alan J. was afraid the person might fall face first into the can, so far into it was his or her body. He shivered, pulled the hood closer. He felt like calling down. What was needed at six o’clock at night in the rainy dark? His mother called up the stairs loudly; dinner was ready. Still he felt compelled to watch and when finally he was about to go indoors and dry off, the person three and a half stories below looked up, scarf falling away from the face.

Her face, he saw as light, long hair was tossed back in a chilled gust. She stood stock still, stared at him a long moment, then slowly raised a gloved hand to him. He saw she couldn’t be so much than fourteen, maybe less or more. She was short and looked terribly thin even in a puffy jacket, face also narrow, small. Alan J. raised his hand to her in almost a wave, and a rush of feelings coursed through his body, a shock of something. He wanted to call out, ask her why she was out there all alone, or what was it she needed. But she quick like a rabbit scurried right into the street and beyond.

******

Alan J. took his perch by the bedroom window to watch for her the next three late afternoons and evenings like he was an appointed sentinel. He’d tried to recall the color of her jacket–black or was it navy?–how her eyes were, how she stood with arms dangling, a half-empty plastic bag slumped on the ground, her fingers wrapped around the top. Bedraggled and worn out was his impression and yet he thought she must have been roaming all day long and still would roam more. She had to be brave, strong. Or entirely out of luck and options. Both, he decided. But she did not return.

The fourth night he decided to get something ready for her just in case, he told himself. Hannah saw him put a sweet roll, box of crackers and slab of cheese into a bag and rolled her eyes. He liked snacks late at night–she did, too– and only told on him when he once took the last three chocolate cupcakes. He then took it all to his room, found a basket of hair stuff in Sarah’s room and emptied it onto her bed. They had used all the string last week threading together plastic glow stars, which they neatly hung atop the windows. So he got the very long, doubled piece of yarn he’d cut from Gran’s stash of skeins and tied it around the basket handle.

It had stopped raining awhile, but he had slicker and flashlight at the ready. A half hour later he caught a glint of that blond hair under the corner street lamp by their house, then saw her run to the garbage cans. He left the flashlight behind–he didn’t want to startle her– but got the basket and entered the balcony to stand at the railing. His heart was beating almost like a hummingbird’s; his breath caught in his throat. Would she look up? He was afraid if he called out she’d dash off. He didn’t want her to be afraid. Worry he’d be mean.

After she found a few empty cans and a small portion of last night’s pizza, she ate hungrily and drank from a large water bottle. Alan J. took the newly food-filled basket, placed it over balcony edge and lowered it down to the ground. It thumped on sodden earth and she glanced that way then away, then back again. It spooked him to imagine her distrust as her elfin face slowly lifted up, up, up until she might have thought she saw someone at the top balcony of the house. But Alan J. had crouched down, made himself small, and leaned against his door, yarn taut in his hands. He did not intend on being seen. It would spoil things. He could hear her run to the basket, rummage in the contents and then, right before she left, there was a tug on the yarn. After listening a few moments, he heard only crows and the slight damp wind. He stood and pulled up the basket. Empty.

Triumph.

Each night when Alan J. could manage it, he put something good in the basket. A soft scarf  no one really needed. Four dollars from the makeshift Mason jar “bank” on his dresser. A small summer sausage with a can of seltzer. A paperback fantasy novel he’d enjoyed and Tootsie Rolls. Each time he hid under cover of darkness–she came roughly around 5:30–as the girl stealthily arrived and left. She always tugged on the basket and he never came forward. It occurred to him that she was counting on him, and that made him feel good. Alan J. had a new purpose and it propelled him through the days, gave him an uncommon sense of fullness.

His family was oblivious. His father was in the basement or at the table eating or in the den with the TV muted. His mother was frantic with Christmas preparations, working on a wreath, and Gran was busy knitting and crocheting, or up to her elbows with kitchen matters. Hannah was with friends, doing homework or telling him to stop looking over her shoulder as she read–she’d pass her sci-fi book along if it was any good. Gerry was just gone; at seventeen he had a junker car and it was his freedom ticket. Plus, he worked part-time.

On the fourth night he stole a look at her. He knew she knew it, as she turned in an oddly careful way toward him, showed him a big smile. Then she dallied a bit over trail mix and a single bottle of apple juice he’d put in the basket, and raised the empty to him in a “cheers” before heading off with bright steps.

He waited to see her from then on. They didn’t speak but communicated with a look, a gesture. He wondered if she could talk, then realized she might wonder the same. Once they both looked at the stars at the same time. It gave him chills when she waved at him without even turning and kept waving as she melted into shadow.

After the seventh time it also came to him that, since she was counting on him, what would she do if he quit this? Strictly garbage can living again–unless others were doing the same as he was. It seemed almost wrong of him to ever consider stopping, yet how could he for certain keep with it? He just would.

The ninth night, three days before Christmas, there was a weather warning: rain mixed with sleet. Possibly snow but likely the dreaded black ice. Maybe she wouldn’t come at all. Maybe she’d found shelter; that would be perfect. But he filled the basket, anyway: a pair of Sarah’s worn mittens, his striped knit cap, a small crocheted throw from his reading chair. And a fat sandwich, lots of turkey with big slab of cheddar. Gran had seen him fix that at four o’clock. She’d warned him to not eat the whole thing before dinner, for goodness’ sake, or his chicken dinner would be unwanted. And then she’d put hands on hips and narrowed her eyes with head cocked to one side. Stopped him cold a minute. He kept his face impassive and waited, but she just threw up her hands and went back to her work.

The sleet hit like bits of glass on glass of the many tall windows. There was a steady fire roaring in the living room and Alan J. sat on the floor near Gran and Big Cat, her black Persian. He listened to the clicking of knitting needles. Heard his father’s footsteps as they trudged up basement stairs.  The Christmas tree, as fancy with decor as each year, was beaming at them. His mother was running quite late and Hannah was dozing under a blanket on the couch. He had worried the cuticle of his right index finger until it bled. He re-checked the time on his cell until it was closer to when the girl might come by. If she’d bother. Gran got up to check on the browning chicken so he slipped away to his room.

He put on his winter coat, went to his balcony, lowered the basket. When he looked down, there she was beneath him the three and a half stories below. And she was looking up. The lights from the house illumined her softly. Her wide eyes were dark and her hair long and straight, the color of straw but streaked with black. She was very pale, perhaps older than he thought, but not as old as Gerry or young as Hannah. She had a grown up air to her as she stood with one hand on hip, jaunty-like.

“Hey, brother, what’s your name?”

Her voice was much louder than he expected; it cut through low howling wind.

“AJ,” he called out, thinking it easier to catch than his whole name. Sleet stung his cheeks, wind seared his eyes. She pulled her hoodie closer to her face and head. He cupped his hands, said, “So here it comes.” The basket slid down over the railing.

“AJ, okay, I’m Marley! Thanks for everything, you’re the best. Saved my belly–you’re a real prince of a guy!” She grinned at him, a big smile that showed uneven teeth.

As soon as it neared her reaching hands, she sorted through it all, tucked the sandwich into a pocket, put on the hat, pulled the mittens over her gloves. He saw her slap and rub newly layered hands together and thought of their radiant fireplace. Of the delicious dinner waiting. Marley took the warm throw and put it around her shoulders and managed to tie a fat knot in the ends. She hesitated a second then pulled out the sandwich and took a giant bite, then another. He wanted to invite her in, to make a ladder and pull her up. She kept eating as he waited; they endured darts of ice and the bitter air. He wished he had stairs to his balcony and a chair for her. What a sight she made, all decked out with the added layers. Somehow she gave off cheer and this made him smile.

Gran set plates and glasses on the table, hoping for her daughter-in-law’s safe drive home. Big Cat sat alert on a window ledge, ears pricked, head turning back and forth. Gran checked to see what she was seeing. It was a medium-sized basket dangling, swaying in the air close to ground, and a slight young girl, alone. Right there in the middle of a storm, she stood eating a sandwich. A basket in mid-air? She grabbed her coat from the coat tree, rushed to the kitchen side door. As soon as she stuck her head out, the girl started, then froze, her fingers releasing the remaining sandwich fall to the ground.

“What’s going on here?”

The girl looked over with saucer eyes as Gran followed the basket string to the crouching boy at the other end. When she looked for the youth again she was gone.

“Alan J.!” she yelled up the balcony. “What are you up to?”

But she knew full well. Her hand pressed against her heart as she closed the door to shut out all the storm.

******

His mother got home and walked into a murmur of excitement. At dinner the event was all they wanted to talk about: a homeless girl and the basket idea and Alan J.’s initiative and how good of him to think of it– but, too, rather risky. Pats on the back, hair ruffled. But still, you never knew…. he should be more careful. No more good deeds that might endanger them all, right?

He didn’t tell them how many nights it had been, just that he’d noticed her once out back, so he’d given her some stuff. All he thought about was how full his stomach was, how warm the rooms and where did Marley have to go next? Gran scared her off. He felt angry. Alarm at that and sadness. Still, the bigger thing was that no one had ever called him “brother” who was not blood, nor called him a “prince”; he heard her voice ring out, carried to him on raw wind. No one had said “thanks for everything” to him like that. He found it sad, yes, but she was amazing, out there on her own, surviving somehow when he’d curl up in a ball and die. She deserved to have more than a small basket now and then, didn’t she? To have a better life, not root about for crumbs.

After dinner, he was glad to get away and scampered upstairs to do math homework. Tried to. He knew she wasn’t still out there; black ice was laid over all now, she’d at least be inside a store or fast seeking shelter. He had a name now, he knew who she was; they’d talked a little. But that was it. It all stuck in his mind like tantalizing clues.

A few minutes later there was rapping on his door. Alan J. didn’t want to answer. But Gran walked right in–he could not recall when she had done that—and sat herself at the end of his bed.

“I want you to know I’m proud of you. Grandpop would be happy to hear it, and likely he does… And I suspect it wasn’t this one time. I didn’t want to embarrass you at the table but, Alan J., you have his spirit, his kind ways.”

At the thought of his grandfather, Alan J. nearly choked up; he was the one he wanted to talk to about the girl. Gran moved closer, put a strong arm about him. The door pushed open and in came his mother and father and they, too, sat on his bed and briefly hugged him.

“But what about Marley?” he asked, tears hot as coals sizzling down cool cheeks.

“I think she’ll be back,” his mother said, laughing, “to see if you were real.”

“You’re a sort of angel for her, son,” his father said with uncharacteristic emotion.

He shook his head. “No.” His words were gulped, hard to get out. “Marley is.”

But he knew they wouldn’t understand. She’d called him “brother” though he was a stranger; she’d called him “the best” when he’d only done the easy thing. A “prince”– for what? For giving her stuff he didn’t need. Marley had welcomed his offerings, and that made him feel rounded with contentment. He’d received the most.

“Maybe she’ll turn up soon,” Gran said as she stood up and peered out the window at the sudden snow. “Getting rougher out there.”

“If she does, can we invite her inside? For dinner at least?” He wiped his nose on a sleeve and stood next to Gran as his parents fidgeted.

She sighed. “I imagine so, we’re in the hospitality business, aren’t we? Of course we are.”

He nodded, wondering if it’d ever really happen. If she’d come in, take off her puff jacket, mittens and the thin gloves and sit by the fire and warm herself, lean in at their table and share hot food. He had to shut his eyes to remember how she’d waved at him, spoken to him. She could fade so fast.

The grownups saw he had gone inside himself again so left, carefully shut his door behind them.

But Alan Jackson Havers III didn’t leave his post at the cold, filigreed window for a long while. He was watching the thickening confetti of snow soften a treachery of ice, watching his street turn into a velvety blanket of white and garbage cans turn into bright, frosty mounds. Watching for Marley with yellow and black hair streaming from beneath his favorite striped hat, a tattered angel sliding along icy sidewalks, roaming the street for good finds.

He felt his fingers itch for drawing pencils and prepared to recreate what he could of her smallness and bigness, which felt to him like unfolding wings in the great secret of darkness.

 

A Way Back Home

“Life hurts more in this city, it shakes its fat fist in my face every day. I can’t take it,” he said, glasses reflecting the phantasmagoria of the giant tree’s lights. They beamed onto the brick and cement urban park, “the Square”, but he was blind to that.

TC knew what he meant, but she couldn’t entirely agree. It was pretty there. They could view the 75 ft. tall Christmas tree decked out in its glory, gather with others in the Square each morning with their maximized paper cups of coffee and a warm  croissant with butter or a cranberry scone. They could watch the shoppers mill about with brightly bulging shopping bags, study folks on lunch break as they lined up at food carts–oh, those savory aromas of hot food drove them nuts. Maybe they’d manage to get a bite to eat later. If she sold enough of her leather jewelry to tourists trying to be tolerant, or city dwellers trying to show good will, they’d get by another day. Harley didn’t think the way she did, though; he needed a drink by noon and then he went from bleakest to medium bleak.

“It’s too pretty, unlike reality, a total sham,” he insisted and took off his glasses, put them in his pocket. Something he did when his eyes hurt or he was just weary of seeing things. He frowned at her, deep brown eyes going darker. “What do you see in it all? It’s just another city where we half-starve and are too cold and wet–or too hot and dry. I’ll take too much heat over this. Let’s go back to California, baby.”

“It’s better here. I like Portland. I feel some real good energy here; just let yourself feel it, too, Harley.” She tamped down the  irritation in her words but it was like a bubble, it sneaked up to the surface.

He got up and winced, then bent over to grab fifteen bucks from her little box before she could stop him and ambled down to the Plaid Pantry. A beer, smokes, a small package of beef jerky.

There went their decent lunch. TC sighed and smiled at the same time at passersby who glanced her way. Her hip bones and rear hurt; her big jacket was barely long enough nonetheless and the sidewalk got harder by the hour.

The light drizzle had been wetting scenery along with people in fits and starts all morning. No one was much bothered. TC had pulled her burlap scrap laden with jewelry under the corner awning of Lil’s All Natural Bake Shop. They had been overlooked by the owner for two days and they hoped for a few more. But there were countless stores and offices, about as many awnings, so they’d just move on. It had been this way for about seven months, ever since she had lost the baby and he had lost his job due to being drunk too many mornings. Harley had argued he was just hung over but if anyone had taken his blood alcohol level he’d have had to cave and admit he was rarely sober. He had things on his mind and his fiancée had had a bad time of it. Two miscarriages in a year. Well, he was sick and tired, too, and out of decent luck. Maybe she was the luck killer, he wasn’t sure.

Fiancée. TC had said that word a few times in her mind. It had first felt luxurious in her mouth, like caramel and dark chocolate or salmon with creamy potatoes. It had shaken her up, given her a small thrill that he’d asked her to marry him a year ago. That was when he was still working at the factory and she’d had a part-time job waitressing. But she’d had her doubts back then, too. Harley wasn’t easy to be with; he wasn’t pleased with anything for long. He reminded her of her father, really, who’d been miserable enough about his circumstances that he’d exited her and her mother’s life early on, then later turned up dead behind an Alaska cannery. Her mother and she hadn’t gone up to his funeral even after his current girlfriend called, hysterical. It had been three years since he’d skipped out by then. They’d not missed him much; it was sad but understandable her mother reassured her.

TC was eleven then and she already had the notion that men tended to be thin-skinned, slow to change, hard to coax love from; she found real life matched those ideas that over the eight years. After the miscarriages, she ought to have struck out for better parts but she was determined to not do as her father had done.  Look where it got him. Her mother just swore and threw up her hands the last time TC had met with her, told her to lose that boy.

Now here they were. Lacking a home and broke and Harley going from bad to worse. She worried about his alcohol problem every minute. She wasn’t able to make one whit of difference.

“Those are cool,” a teenager said as she touched a pair of earrings with their fine leather leaves. “You make these designs yourself?”

“I do,” she said and held them up to the potential buyer. “Thanks!”  But she knew better. This was a teen with little cash, less real interest. The girl fingered the earrings, put them back, made a peace sign and left.

Someone will come along and buy five pairs, TC told herself in a sing-song way. It was like a spell she said often. It could mean at least fifty dollars, maybe seventy-five if they got the fancier ones. She got scraps at the leather supply store and she had had the tools for years, so her profit could be decent.

If only they hadn’t lost the apartment in Sacramento, but when Harley got going all the money was poured down his gullet or wasted elsewhere, she was never sure how. And she had been unwell with the pregnancies, then miscarriages. It got too hard to get up each day and try to hold things together while Harley was out there ripping and roaring with buddies. TC hated being a loser, being unable to pay her way, giving up when she had a very strong will. her will didn’t do her much good when she made bad decisions. Yeah, she had weak-willed herself right onto the streets along with dealing with Harley past the expiration date of their relationship.

So much for being a fiancée. And how to will herself off these streets, nice as they seemed? She knew she might be kidding herself when she filled up with hope but it mattered to her to believe, anyway.

Before the sun had peaked and then started its way back down, TC had made three sales, enough that she could eat even in the morning–maybe share with Harley if he hadn’t gotten food. She stood more often, shifting from foot to foot, rubbing her gloved hands together, blowing her nose on extra toilet paper she had taken and stuffed in her pocket earlier. She had to go to the bathroom now, but she’d learned how to wait and wait and wait, if necessary. When Harley came back, they’d go into a store for a while to warm up, use restrooms. Meanwhile, the towering Christmas tree was so beautiful TC stared at it again, then counted the bills and felt much better.

But Harley didn’t come back. TC decided to not run the streets looking for him; it was getting late and unsafe. He might show up later, he might not. That was, finally, how she felt.

******

It was dark  by 5:00 so time to head out. After she used the restroom, washed up a little and ate a grilled ham and cheese sandwich (and saved the turkey jerky, a fair protein source), she warmed up as she sipped fragrant hot coffee. Harley was nowhere near from what she could tell. She got up and checked out nearby shelters, but they were already full since December was spewing icy darts of wet. She walked to a nearby residential area. Her feet were starting to ache with damp and cold, the old leather seams of her boots letting in water; she tried to avoid puddles. She knew of a small apartment building; its second floor cement balconies were big enough that she could stay mostly dry beneath one. There was a spot by a casement window where she curled up with a fleece throw kept stuffed in the backpack. The spot  was still available; she hunched down, knees to chin, blanket about her, thick navy cap pulled down to her eyes. The trick was to become invisible–not the tenants as much as roaming street people. So far it seemed she was alone.

It took a long time to doze off to the dull rhythm of rain on cars, trees, gutters and roofs, that balcony but when sleep came it gave her five or six hours, to her surprise. She’d been dreaming of Christmas  as a kid, and she was about to open a box she shook it but it sounded and felt empty. TC straightened up, the aching stiffness making her feel old and half-sick, Her legs were cramped up so she stretched them, only to get a direct hit from raindrops. TC yanked her soiled blanket tightly about shoulders and chest. Her cheap cell phone indicated it was almost midnight. She should move, find a doorway even more protected.

“Hey,” a husky but feminine voice called out. It came from above. “What’re you doing there? It’s freaking pouring ice chips and it’s about my bedtime so I step out for a smoke and there you are, shivering underneath my feet!”

TC stood up fast, crammed her blanket in her pack, started across the muddy spot.

“Hey, hey, hey, girl–I’ve seen you here before. I was going to offer some help this time.”

TC hesitated, looked back, rain flooding her face. She then pulled the cap down to her eyes and struck out.

“Hey kid, I’ve been there!” The woman lit a cigarette and blew a stream of smoke into the weak light of her balcony. “I’ve done the street thing, suffered the price and now have a place.” She coughed. “This weather, what can you do? I have a couch you can use tonight, no deals needed, no ulterior motives. Just a chintzy dry spot.”

TC hunched her shoulders. The rain was biting at her skin now, it was closer to sleet, and she was shivering in spite of her strong will to be okay, to deal with it. She’d heard the stories of street people dying of hypothermia, getting vicious lung infections, being killed. This woman of about fifty with reddish hair stood on the covered balcony in sweatshirt and sweat pants. Waiting as if she was willing to be patient. What was there to lose? Maybe she would attack her, maybe she would do worse, her nightmares come true but she carried a knife, everyone did.

With Harley she had felt safer even when she wasn’t, really. Why did he disappear again? But it was freeze or hopefully get warm.

“So you know, I’m Eve Marker and I live with my terrier, Pearl. I’m a singer but she is not. She doesn’t bother to bite unless I am scared. I’m not a bit scared, and neither should you be, dear. I’m cold and I’m going in, are you coming?” She tossed her cigarette into the sheet of rain. “And you are, if I might ask?”

“I’m TC.” Her skin was starting to get goose bumps from the temperature. “Okay, yeah.” Did she know the name Eve Marker or was she just wishing she did? A club, maybe, near where they hung out. Not that it made her feel very reassured.

“Smart kid. Go to the front door.”

Animal comfort just won out. She ran to the heavy door but it was locked so she, stood under the eaves until the older woman came. She followed her upstairs. Eve wasn’t as old as she had first thought; the woman gave her a lopsided smile and her face softened.

“Hello there,” Eve Marker said.

“Hi.” She wondered if this was the biggest mistake of her life but no alarms went off in her. She knew how to sense danger and avoid it if at all possible. This was just different, even if peculiar.

When they entered the apartment, and Pearl the terrier lifted her head from her bed and then put it back down on front paws, TC was filled with a small relief. It was a small, cramped place–Eve said it was one bedroom, that was all she needed–but no matter, it was dry and there was small fake, decorated Christmas tree; a candle burning that smelled of cinnamon; and a tiny kitchen revealed a late night snack of half eaten toast and peanut butter nd a mug on the counter. TC dropped her backpack, took off her shoes by the door, then lay her wet jacket on top of the rest.

“Nice manners, TC, you were raised good. Want some tea?”

TC looked about her. She felt calmer, now she was inside the pleasant rooms, soon to dry out. “Sounds nice, thanks.”

Eve leaned against the kitchen counter, hands on thin hips. “I don’t know why I let you in. You could be a madwoman! But I just thought, I’ve seen you a few times down there–I’m an insomniac, everything gets me up and going–and tonight the spirit moved me.” She smiled that sloppy smile at TC. “And like I said, I’ve been on the street. Once, long ago, for nearly a year. I got behind on all my bills and one things led to another. Those were the bad ole days when I was below thirty thinking life owed me and I drank to silence the whiny wail of self-pity.”

She laughed a throaty laugh, eyes half-closed, and waved her hand as if to dispel the past, faded red hair fluffing about her delicately lined face. She filled a mug with hot water, dunked a peppermint tea bag into it–Eve thought she’d like chamomile but no matter, any hot tea was a gift as she dried out. “What happened, TC?–and what’s that short for?”

“It’s just TC.” She pulled her hat off and shook matted chin-length brown hair. Put her nose close to the bright scent of mint.

“Alright, then, you from around here or what?”

“Are you?” She couldn’t help it, she wasn’t about personal questions yet. “You said you sing?”

“Yes, born and bred. I’m at L’Heure Bleue Club four nights a week, you know it? Jazz club at Twelfth and Main. Tonight is a night off.”

“I’ve heard of it.” She had passed it many times; it was in a more ritzy part of city center.

“Well, it doesn’t pay like I used to be paid but it’s a gig and I’m glad of it. Music is my only love these days!”

TC sipped and when she bent her head she could also smell sweat and the dirt and despair and anger of the streets on her. “I make jewelry, that’s how I try to get by. Harley, he– oh, never mind.”

“I know, he’s here and there, huh? I like the sound of handmade jewelry. Maybe tomorrow you’ll show me.”

“I don’t know if it’s any good. Just made a few bucks. But Harley’s gone, maybe. Just has less patience and sees the worst in everything. I guess I should find him.” She looked back at the door, as if thinking this was a mistake and there was time to get out fast.

Eve watched her face close off emotion, saw her mind drift and so she yawned dramatically without apology. “Listen, TC, I am going to try to get some shut-eye. The more we talk, the more wide awake we’ll both be.” She rose and pointed down the hall. “Bathroom is there, feel free to shower, warm up. I’ll get some pajamas if you want. If you need anything else, holler.”

TC’s eyes flickered with anxiety despite a deep desire to be calm. The lady came closer and TC could not avoid her eyes without being rude.

“Hey,” Eve said gently. “You’re safe here. I get it. Still, we may as well be as nice to one another as we can. I know you’ll hightail it out of here early morning. It’s okay. Eat something. Take food to go, I don’t care. I can give you a few bucks, I’ll shove it under my door to the hallway, you can just get it, no worries. ”

TC shook her head. “No, I won’t take anything–maybe I should leave, I shouldn’t be bothering you and I’m not sure– I mean, why?”

Eve ignored the question. “And let me know if I can help otherwise. You can look me up at the club anytime. Tonight, though, I’ll put clean flannel pjs and undies in the bathroom if you want to use them. Toss your clothes in the washer, dry them tonight –there are stackables in the closet by the kitchen to use.” She gave a quick but sad smile, eyes quiet as her voice. “Night, kid. Take care.”

She turned and went to her room. Pearl trotted after her mistress with the slightest glance at TC then gave a small yelp as she disappeared after Eve.

TC sank into the lumpy couch, smoothed the worn wooly blanket on it and gazed at the blazing Christmas tree. Sleet slid onto, then pummeled roof, street, trees. She thought of Harley squeezed in between the dozens of other dirty, tired, hungry, angry and tough and longing men at a shelter. Or drunk under one of the many bridges, too cold for living long. New fear and hurt threatened her fragile hold on her oddly improved night. She looked toward the hallway. What luck she had found under that balcony,  being told she could come up just like that.

But a stranger, she was in a stranger’s home and no one knew where she was; no one really cared. Even her mother had gone off the radar the past month or two, caught up in her own dramas (husband number three) and pressing needs. His house was overrun with two bratty kids and three crazy cats, she’d said. No room for TC.

TC entered the clean oh-so-private bathroom, not a mildewy group shower, and stripped off soiled damp clothing. Held a sweet-smelling, soft green towel to her face. Her feet had raw blisters, more cracked and itchy spots. When she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror she shuddered. How had she gotten this miserable and worn out? Where was her basic good nature, the hope? Was it all an act for Harley, and to kid herself so she could go on?

The shower was turned on; she stepped into a generous spray and let it run over chilled flesh a long while, relishing the moments, the fresh smell of the soap. Heavenly. This woman must be a genuine angel–was that possible in these times? She giggled at that and let out a deep sigh. She’d have leave in the morning, of course, but at least she would have another good memory.

Eve heard the shower and lay with eyes wide open. The girl would leave at dawn and keep on running, no doubt. She knew how it was. No good place to claim as one’s own, no one to care for you, no reason to keep trying after a while. Or was she like herself, more stubborn, and willing to get out of her own way, let the man go and start to better grow up? Get a life together again?

The water flowed a long time. Eve imagined how good that steamy air felt to TC and recalled how it had been for her when she had been drifting in a haze of boozey illusions and days without food or good hygiene. But she drifted off, anyway, and began to dream of her little sister when she was still alive, of the music she adored and sang by heart every set, of other rains sweet on her lean body in a faraway time, a different country.

A triple knock at her door brought her right back so that she sat bolt upright, her quilt pulled to her chest.

“Who…?” Oh, the girl again.

“Eve?”

Her whispery voice didn’t sound right. She must have been crying, that was it.

“Yeah, what is it, TC?”

“Can we…talk a little more? I’m sorry to bother you.”

So Eve got up in the fine veil of darkness and sat on the couch. The Christmas tree threw a multicolored prism of light across the humble room, on a bunch of white and yellow mums in a second hand blue vase set upon the coffee table and the art prints on walls The leaf print overstuffed pillow on the floor was taken by TC, where she slouched, looking at her hands.

“Shoot,” Eve said. “We all have stuff we need to tell.”

“My name is Teresa Christine…Keenan.” Her voice almost disappeared but she began again. “I grew up in L.A after my father left my mother and me and then we got by on her hairstylist’s earnings–she’s good– but it was not a piece of cake. Though back then I thought it was all good, I was glad to wake up in my peach bedroom with its narrow bed and a handmade Raggedy Ann doll and my library books, hearing my mother yelling for me to get up, come down already, it was late, and she made me frozen waffles. I believed if I tried hard enough, things could be better… but things got worse off and on. My mother says all this is just more life, take it for what it is and don’t complain. But now I have to change things. I just can’t accept my life like this.”

Eve heard her voice as if it was the sea rolling in and out and she sensed this lost young woman might be ready to find her own balance for the first time. She might even stick around a bit. Pearl jumped up to listen on Eve’s lap, ears cocked, and they sat that way even after the heedlessness of winter rain failed to wreak greater damage and just gave up. Even after TC fell into the relief of  good sleep.

 

Friday’s Passing Fancy/Poem: Invisible

165

I live around here, too, unknown to you,
beneath my own flag of greens and blues,
amid dirt, broken glass, rock and trees,
watched over by wild animals, madmen
and the odd angel or two.
My world view is from a sidewalk,
behind a fence, through rain or spider’s webs.

The lives of many peoples like me
hide in musty corners, mingle by rivers,
traverse the paths that you avoid,
and our blood has colored much of
what was ruined, traded or stolen.
We may fight but soon give it all up.
We have so little to bargain with.

You don’t see us, don’t hear me.
I am an invisible, a tattered one
most often omitted in roll call,
overlooked in life’s endless lines,
or one who wandered too far from the crowd.
My bed is terra firma or a slice of space
between fifty others. Like a shadow
erased by cover of night,
I come forward with light’s breaking,
am weightless, transient as cottonwood fluff.

You think you know me and I, you.
We cross paths, share time, but fail
to recognize humanity in one another.
I may ask you for a dollar or small mercies;
you mostly turn aside. Fate is cast that easily.
But if you could look, take a chance even once

we might lock hands, see they’re both
etched with hopes, hurts and affections.
We could try to salvage one another
a little before it is too late–
brother and sister, it’s later every day.
We might set free one dazed and dingy dove,
then open the way to life’s simplest gifts
each ordinary person is meant
to embrace, to give and be given.

shadows-006

Little Spy

Photo by Mary Ellen Mark
Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

The haggard man of indiscriminate age slumped over, then lay on the wooden plank seating as he did every morning. He had had his pint already. On a green bench three women who acted as if they were glued together were a newer sight, had taken to coming here with a mangy little dog held tight one wide lap. The other two clutched shopping bags or purses, it was hard to tell which the voluminous objects were.

The girl was there, under the tree. She came and went from Angle Park, a good-sized slice of public space at Hammond and Right. She scrunched up her eyes at passersby; this gave her a mean look though she wasn’t always aware of it. It was part habit born of seeing less clearly than she ought. The other part was because she could be troublesome. And ruled by distrust. Why deny it? She stared at The Triplets, as she called them, and wished they would move on soon. They had dozens of things in those bags, pulled them out and spread them between themselves as if counting treasures. The girl had nothing but what fit into her pockets and a well-used backpack she’d found in a dumpster. The contents were hidden unless there was real need of anything, like the worn toothbrush or a second pair of socks.

Across the street Marlene puffed on a slim cigarette, her one luxury. Perched on the top step of stairs belonging to a crumbling brick apartment complex, the neighborhood’s work and recreation were noted with roving eyes. She worked, not as often as she’d prefer, as a cleaning lady. It was good money if she got four or five jobs in a row. Her ex-boss, her mother’s friend, recommended her for some that were too small for the company so she had gratitude. She put her name and number on bulletin boards and in the weekly rag. Things had slowed, though; rent was due. She had called Sal to see if he could loan her three hundred. He might stop by after nine that night. Or not.

He was a fickle one, that man, but he had a way. They had long ago been school chums. Now he had money and could make things happen. Marlene found him repulsive even as she was mesmerized, that teardrop tatoo on his cheekbone, hands calloused and powerful, words like spun honey spiked with vinegar. In a far better time and place he might have been the mayor, she thought, but he was “Boss” around the neighborhood. She loved to hate him, she smiled to herself, then wondered what he’d demand in return for the loan.

That girl, KZ, was sitting still as some yogi, Marlene thought, as she lit another cigarette from the burning tip of her first. Not even moving, eyes closed, head bowed like she was a saint. Caffeine withdrawal was setting in and if Marlene had five extra bucks she’d get the girl as she sometimes did, tell her to run to the coffee shop for a latte, then give her a few dollars for a tip. That could buy her a cheap burger or a pair of socks.

She lived somewhere around here, Marlene thought, but beneath that thought was a shiver. Where? The girl showed up off and on all day. She was a thug’s messenger, drug runner or thief–or what else? People knew about her but didn’t care to know more–live and let live. Whereas Marlene did think about things like the weather and her flimsy, grungy hoodie or that bad hair, as if she had hacked off the top in a fit of spite. Or that steady silence. She spoke as little as possible: “yeah, naw, dunno.” Didn’t she go to school at all?

“Hey, KZ! Wake up, come here!” she called out as she walked across the street, cigarette dangling from her thin, Solar Pink lips.

KZ didn’t open her eyes. She heard Marlene but didn’t want to be disturbed. She was trying to get somewhere else, to her grandfather’s, to the mountains where they used to visit him, or just to sleep. Could she sleep sitting like this? It had happened once. That would be handy.

Marlene stood over her, breathing as if she’d been running when she had just walked fast. Her lungs felt heavy and noisy; she had to stop smoking. She knew KZ felt her there so tapped hard on her shoulder, then wiped her fingers on navy capris. Looking down onto her spiky head, she thought she saw something move and took a step back.

“I need a coffee. If I get a small, you could get one, too. Or an oatmeal cookie. I only have seven bucks, so it’s a tiny tip or a treat. What say?”

“Can’t go, halfway to Mt. Ferron.”

“That’s a long way,  it’ll take you more than one little yogi sit.”

“Bother The Triplets.”

“Who?”

“The Triplets. Bags full of junk. Over there.” KZ, eyes still closed, pointed in their direction.

“Why would I ask them when I can always get you to go? I don’t know them; they’d take my coffee.”

“They just moved in.” KZ breathed all the way from her tailbone to her chest, then let it go, a slow hiss. “Go.”

“How long will it take you to get to the mountain and back?”

“Ten minutes.” KZ turned her whole body toward the tree and away from the woman.

Marlene sat down in the dappled shade. The alcoholic was sleeping already. The three women were boring, cards in their hands, playing a game where no one seemed to be winning.

“How come you’re always here and alone? Don’t you have nobody?”

KZ’s shoulders didn’t even rise or fall with her breathing. It was possible the kid was a yogi or something, she seemed to know things no one else did, and she could disappear without a trace. It had been four months since she’d arrived. Marlene had been taking groceries up the steps when she had heard a swift movement behind her and planted her feet, dropped her full bag and got ready for a fight. But it was just the girl, her grubby hand out.

“Got a dollar?”

Marlene blinked in the street light glow and tried to assess what else was coming, then dug into her pocket and pulled out a dollar. Then she grabbed a package of donuts and tossed them to the child.

The blazing grin that broke across her grim, pale face erased any ill will Marlene might have had. They had been half-friendly since, but from a distance, without exchange of personal information. Or at least, not much from KZ but a name and a few other less personal comments. Observations, Marlene had come to think of them. About the neighborhood, but also about life. Like the time she said something that shook her up.

Marlene had had a fight out back with Sal over how he treated her, nothing the kid would know about, and afterwards KZ had come up to the porch and stood in front of her.

“That man is a greedy dark dragon; you’re not for him. Let all death-seekers die hard, alone!”

“What are you talking about?” It scared her, such words delivered with the sound of authority, KZ’s voice a wild wind. “I’m no fantasy lover and don’t believe you half the time. I’m just… well, about him, stupid! Go away.”

“You do believe, just wrong things.”

And KZ ran off. The night enveloped her slim, short figure so that she seemed to dissolve into its depths.

The Triplets threw their cards down, then one stuffed them into a bag. They got up, hooked arms and walked to the corner where they waited for a bus. The little dog trotted along. Marlene stretched, fidgeted, ready to get her own coffee. She just hated to walk before she got that charge of energy to all systems.

“Alright.” KZ opened her palm and money was placed there. “And Sal won’t be around tonight.”

“Sal?”

The girl left on a fast, steady jog, dodging a couple of cars as she crossed the street, people honking at her, yelling. Marlene imagined she could run for hours if necessary. Days, even. KZ lived on air and the unreliable decency of others. But not for much longer, she thought. She had to be ten or eleven. She’d had a shaky diet and bad sleep a long time; she could be older or younger than she looked. But she would grow up; she’d be hunted out there. It was enough to ruin Marlene’s entire morning thinking about it.

She did need a good washing even if it wasn’t kind to think it.

It wasn’t the first time Marlene considered all these things but KZ had never entered her apartment. She didn’t think she would, even if she welcomed her with a hot meal in hand. Smart girl. The one time she had brought out a grape jam and peanut butter sandwich for her, everyone in the park was at her for one, too. That lasted a couple of days, then she quit. She didn’t have so much she could always give it away.

“I’m good,” KZ had said and shrugged. “There’s food, just have to know where and when.”

So what did she mean about Sal, anyway? KZ got around; she paid close attention. Her observations had been right, often.

A medium latte came back to her with two cookies.

“Counter guy, Rod? Gave you extra coffee, us another cookie.”

KZ kept one cookie and the dollar, then tucked both into the passed out drunk’s hand.

“Hey, that was for you. And hey, what about Sal?”

“You’ve got a life, right? Ole guy T-Man has a life, too. I got work to do,” she said and took off.

******

It was nine o’clock, it was nine-thirty and then ten, then later than she wanted it to be. Marlene was watching a show on iguanas and desert flowers, things so exotic she almost enjoyed it. Smoking her cigarette after long-delayed noodles with a tuna sandwich made her stomach clench. She checked her cell. No messages. For the tenth time she peered between faded floral curtains into the lonely street, then Angle Park with its amber-lit lanterns. She could see forms moving through the walkways, and when she raised the window a few inches for a wash of night air, she heard strangers talking, rumblings on a cool draft. Maybe they were secret lovers or buddies loose from crummy jobs and on the prowl. More likely they were customers of some kind. It didn’t matter to her as long as they stayed out there.

The park had once been good, a lush green spot among grey, pitted blocks of buildings. That was before rents went up though places decayed. Some were replaced and people moved out. Somehow the park–that whole block–became a stop for foragers and drug users and petty criminals. Marlene was accustomed to it though her mother called once a week to inform her what was for rent in the suburbs. What a joke! She could no more live out there on her earnings! More to the point, she could no more move there after being wedged into this corner than if she was a princess encouraged to move into a tent. You couldn’t change things up like that. Her mother had married better a second time so moved, that was alright for her. Marlene was in a holding pattern with everything, that was all. Right now she needed rent money, not wishes or advice.

A gust carried in a light, high whistle. A pause then another louder one. Marlene put her ear close to the window sash and doused the pole lamp. She moved out of the frame and sneaked a peek outdoors. Nothing looked different; foot traffic was swift, quiet. Another whistle, this time shrill, rising from beneath her window.

“Marlene!”

A spiky top of a head appeared, then KZ’s frowning dark brown eyes.

“Lemme in!”

“Why? You never come in!”

“Gotta talk!”

“Coulda rung the doorbell.” Marlene got up to open the front door.

“Couldn’t. Back door!”

“Alright already!”

Heartbeat upticking, Marlene ran to the back door that opened onto an alley and let KZ in her tiny galley kitchen.

The girl was sweating, face seemed more ruined than usual. Her breath fell out in jagged gasps until Marlene got her a glass of water, then made her sit in the blue painted wooden chair and sip it. Then she saw the line of blood coming from her hand, trickling down her wrist and dripping onto the floor. She examined the long but likely not emergency-type gash, got a damp tea towel, dabbed at it and wrapped it.

KZ breathed more slowly. “Chain link fence. Got caught going over but someone was chasing me and listen–Sal, he’s not coming.”

“So you said. Why are you a mess of nerves and sweat?” She tried to not breathe deeply; KZ had been unwashed a long time and the kitchen was stuffy. She didn’t want to think too hard about Sal but something was bad.

“Sit down, okay?” The girl shook but was firm in tone.

Marlene took the other blue chair and sat. She felt dizzy, as if she had about missed a seat on a moving train, and her shoulder hit the wall.

“He’s gone. G-O-N-E.”

“What? Not true! KZ, stop with the stories!”

KZ’s eyes were open for once. Marlene almost shrank in alarm though they were nice enough, just shy of pretty eyes. Maybe it was the darkness, her being able to see without being readily seen, or maybe she called on her other senses to direct her more. But now those distrustful orbs were round and golden brown in the 60 watt light fixture above Marlene’s kitchen sink.

“They got him.”

“Who got him, what d’ya mean?” She grabbed the tea-toweled hand, released it when KZ winced, then flattened her own hands on the table.

“I dunno, maybe it was cops, undercover. Somebody said so, it was so fast, guns, shouting like when dad was taken, mom shot four times, so much noise everywhere and blood, you can’t believe it’s happening so when Sal was down on the porch like that, face mashed on the floor and then they handcuffed him and guns out, it had to be cops, right, or gangsters, right? And he’ll die or worse—”

“KZ! KZ, KZ, shhh. Breathe, breathe like a yogi, breathe now.”

“–then there were two more guys shooting and I took off because they saw me I was flying you know there was fence back the house and I climbed it hand caught or they’d catch me and then it would it would it wouldn’t it, right? Or if–”

Marlene got up and kneeled before the girl. She grasped her shoulders and shook her gently in slow motion, KZ tumbling forward and backward in her grip, those terrible words ebbing until they were a dribble and all the fear let go and she got quieter so that the room of silence stopped them at one still point, breathless.

The were like that awhile, Marlene and KZ hunched now on the floor, moths beating their perfect wings against her screen door, the alley empty of all but the rats and a few angry fierce cats and a barking dog that cried out in pain eventually just once, and Sal going down for life or forever. It was more than Marlene could bear but she bore it. She held on and KZ held on back until they finally got up and sat on the tattered love seat in the shadow-shrouded living room.

After awhile Marlene reached over and touched KZ’s toweled hand. “Want a hot bath?”

KZ blinked at her as if she now realized who she was, where they were. She looked around. Nodded so imperceptibly that Marlene had to look her in the eye for the okay.

KZ sat on the toilet lid, knees to chin, waited as Marlene turned on steaming water and poured in a cupful of bubbly soap. Then a few clean things were gathered for the girl.

“Soak it all off. I’ll be waiting. We’ll drink sodas and eat cheese and saltines and watch tv. My couch can be yours for now.”

When the door closed, KZ peeled off filthy clothing, then stepped in with each tentative foot. She lowered herself beneath wavelets of sweet frothy water, face turned up to twinkling white Christmas lights that ringed the walls. She wept and wept without a sound and her mind turned sheer blue as mountain skies, her dad and mom and grandfather stepping forward to gather her and hold her, hold her fast.

 

What Counts is Being Here Together

Tired, pensive and grateful: these come close to describing my feelings as I write tonight. Frankly, I had thought of skipping this post or maybe copying and pasting an already-published excerpt of my novel and leaving it at that. I am not deluded about the importance of these posts to others.

However, I love to write. I actually need to write, especially since life has so much to tell me.

And the last couple of days have been filled to overflowing. I just returned from two days attendance at the Northwest Institute of Addictions Studies conference. Each summer, it is given in partnership with the Addictions Studies Program at Lewis and Clark Graduate School of Counseling. There were various sessions offered, as usual, presented by local, state and national experts. The topics ranged from adolescent opiate abuse, mindfulness-based relapse prevention, health care and the need for integrating addictions services, and the complicated challenges of treating gamblers. I chose my sessions and gained some good information despite too-cool or too-stuffy rooms and long hours sitting in uncomfortable chairs. I have been to a lot of conferences over the span of twenty-five years. I even gave my own trainings in the distant past. And it’s seldom the information that interests me so much as the people, familiar or not.

As I settled in the first day, someone said my name. Sitting down beside me was a fine-featured woman. We had worked together thirteen years earlier with adolescents at a large outpatient mental health program. I had been at an outlying satellite office but still recalled her as being efficient, smart and a lot younger and more educated than I was. She told me she had burned out quickly so left the organization to raise a family and re-think things.

“But all those kids–I want to work with them again. So much is at stake for them. I think I can still help.” 

She was earnest and amazed by the new research about teens and addictions. I wished her well and ran into her later when she was deep in conversation with a presenter. Her enthusiasm was infectious. 

I saw another past co-worker in the hallways not once but three  times. We had worked with indigent, often homeless adults in city center but E. had left to work at the state level, doing more research-driven work that impacted policymaking. I had just read something she had written. We chatted easily although it had been seven years. She had recently retired.

“I think about it,” I admitted. “But I’m not sure I’m done with this work.”

“Oh, I’m starting a private practice,” she assured me and we laughed.

At one session I struck up a dialogue with a fiftyish, burgundy-haired woman who had driven six hours from a more rural area to Portland. She had worked with teens exclusively and was looking for more effective tools with which to treat them.

“They might be some tougher than when I started out twenty-five years ago but I’m tougher, too.”

I nodded; I understood what she meant. And the way she held herself and spoke convinced me. But as she spoke of her clients, her face softened with compassion and her eyes brightened.

Across a large room I spotted a man with whom I’d worked at a Native American treatment facility. I couldn’t catch his eye so I started to turn–then he waved and smiled.  I thought about the couple of years I spent with tribal members from all over the western states. They brought with them devastated lives and longing for their traditions. I have kept the beaded necklaces and bracelets some gifted me in a special box.

During lunch today I took a break from the throngs and sat by the hotel pool, eating my almond butter sandwich and soaking up the sunshine. A man sat down with his salad and quietly ate. I closed my eyes and was about to doze off when I glanced at him. His name tag informed me he was K. and worked at an agency near my place of employment. He was a mental health clinician so I closed my eyes again. I primarily address substance disorders and related issues. My impulse was to avoid a heavy conversation about mental health versus addictions treatment. But it is unlike me to not talk to someone who is sitting beside me, especially at a conference or other sociable gathering.

“How are you enjoying the sessions?” I asked.

We were off and running. He shared with me how he had only gotten into the field about eight years ago after a successful business career. He’d  thought he’d found something he loved and it turned out he was right. We covered the gamut from the problems inherent in diagnosis and the skills we try to bring to treating our clients, what works better and what seems to fail, and what surprises we have had. A couple of laughs were shared. We’ve had separate yet common experiences helping people to help themselves. I have outlasted him only because I have been at it longer. I recognized in his crinkly eyes a familiar gleam of passion for the work and we concluded we both will keep at this as long as we are able.

“Do you think you’ll find a way to do this even when you retire one day?” he asked as we wrapped it up.

“I can’t imagine not getting out there and being of some service,” I admitted. “Youth at risk, those waylaid or homebound by illness, people with hard luck and living in shelters, and, of course, alcoholics and addicts–there is so much going on that could use more helping hands.” I paused. “Or maybe I’ll write about it all. Probably both.”

“Yes, one way or  another, there’s work to do,” he agreed and warmly shook my hand. “I’ll keep you in mind when my clients need addictions treatment.” 

It was near the end of the day and I had one last session to attend on gambling. I looked forward to it but I was winding down.

“Hey Cynthia!”

I turned around and there was D. striding toward me. Over six feet tall, a bit heavier than the last time I had seen him, he exuded confidence and well-being. I grabbed his hand but he pulled me into a hug. We caught up briefly before the presenters began. He now sat on the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, still advocating for addicted persons albeit in another manner. I wondered what that was like for him; he said he enjoyed it. I asked him about his two children, how he was doing. It was a too-brief chat, as had been the case all day. But we’ve had many such exchanges over the years; I will run into him again.

 Truthfully,we don’t have to say much. He was barely twenty when he came to the field as a wide-eyed, fledgling counselor at the locked residential facility where I worked. Our clients were gang-affected or affiliated youth; kids who lived on the streets; kids carrying anger and trauma with them from morning til night, addictions their only escape. Yet those addictions  brought them to us, and DB and I sat with them, sorrowed with them, tried to protect them and each other awhile as their pain escaped like boiling water. D and I and the other counselors encouraged each other. It was not a very safe place but it was a place we chose to be.

We kept watch. We bore witness. If needed, we gave permission for them to tell their own truths. And we asked them to hold on while we cared so that they could discover and practice a better way.

Sometimes it all worked. And many times it did not. But D and I and the others kept at it because it was what we wanted to do. Or perhaps it chose us,  in the end.

As I leave the conference I recall K. asking me an odd question.

“Do you still remember them years later? I mean, do you think about your old clients and wonder if they are okay, if they got better, how their lives turned out?”

Yes, I told him. I remember their eyes, their dreams, their stories, the way they struggled to become whole and free. I remember their losses and triumphs.  They have left with me something of who they are, some more than others. Their lives never stop moving me.

And, too, I remember the dozens of counselors I have worked with and the conversations, large and small, that have made a difference to me. And the dignity of silent understanding when needed. Seeing them once more is a comfort: we just keep getting on with it.

What matters most is that we really are in this together–all just people in the end, lost or found or somewhere in between.